Monday, December 1, 2014

Last Things Last

The inmate was a sponge of religious information. He asked not only for a Bible, a concordance and a Bible dictionary but also for a Quran, a Torah and just about every other scripture I had access to. Then he quizzed me closely—about the Bible, thank God. While I know more than the average Christian about other religions, I am really only an expert in my own. And the topic of most of his questions was: the end of the world. Of course. 

For some people that seems to be the most important part of the Bible. Sometime before I became chaplain, someone donated to the jail 10 sets of the entire Left Behind series of novels—that's 120 books! I could really use the shelf space for other books. However, this group of poorly written, theologically narrow books with their rather specific interpretation of the Last Days were bestsellers. They spawned some rather bad movies, which joined all the other low budget evangelical apocalyptic films. At certain Christian bookstores you can find marvelously detailed and colorful charts that manage to organize all the eschatological texts of the Bible into a scheme that rivals the map of the London Underground for intricacy. There are whole denominations that so emphasize the End Times that one wonders how they get through today's tasks. Working your job, getting an education, doing your taxes must seem really trivial compared to the the idea that at any second you could be raptured out of your clothes to join Jesus in the heavens and get a front row seat at the Tribulation of the world, climaxing in a Michael Bay style Armageddon.

The problem is that there are other interpretations of the small number of apocalyptic texts in the Bible. Indeed there are 4 major schools of interpretation of the Book of Revelation, one of which posits that most of the admittedly highly symbolic events in the book took place in the first century. In view of this, and of the fact that 2/3 of the books of the Bible are concerned primarily with how we live this life, why are some people so obsessed with the 43 chapters out of 1189 that talk about the distant future?

Part of it is the fun of piecing it all together. The references to the last judgment and the end times are scattered and not easy to reconcile. It's rather like fans trying to account for the different positions given for Dr. Watson's war wounds in the Sherlock Holmes stories or trying to reconcile all of the eyewitness testimonies concerning the Kennedy assassination. It's a great puzzle and trying to make a coherent whole out of so many disparate parts is challenging and if you succeed, at least in your own mind, satisfying.

For some it is not so much fun as a psychological imperative. Those whose minds reject hints and metaphors and paradoxes for unambiguous clarity and concreteness must clean up all uncertainty in Scripture. For them the Bible is rather like an science kit instruction book for building your own computer and it won't do to leave anything the least bit vague. Everything must be spelled out in specific detail. Nothing can be left for interpretation.

I often wonder how these folks cope with all the poetry and parables and metaphors and symbolism that the Bible obviously contains, especially in the apocalyptic passages. I have yet to read of or talk to anyone who believes that the antichrist will literally have 7 heads and ten horns. If they acknowledge that that part is symbolic why can they not admit that much of the other bits are as well? The Book of Revelation wasn't written to satisfy idle curiosity. Its stated purpose (1:3) was to comfort and encourage persecuted Christians in the first century with the message that while things may get worse, God will win in the end. Promises are made to those who overcome the trials of the persecution. And the book was just as obviously cloaked in symbolic language to disguise its scathing criticism of the Roman Empire so that it wouldn't be suppressed and destroyed. That means interpreting it must be done very carefully and with the realization that the author didn't want to make it too easily deciphered. For those of us not living in that time and culture, it is doubly hard. Yet the broad outline of God's triumph over sin and pain and death is crystal clear.

My biggest problem with those who spend way too much time working out the smallest details of the Eschaton is that they ignore what Jesus said about such things. I wish our gospel passage today included the whole of Mark's 13th chapter. Jesus begins in verse 5 by saying, “Let no one lead you astray.” Jesus realizes that false prophets can and will manipulate teachings about the end of the age for their own purposes. So Jesus again and again tells his disciples to not get sidetracked by all this stuff. In verse 7 he says, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place but the end is not yet.” This teaching of Jesus should stop people from constructing elaborate timetables and making predictions of when Christ will return. It never ceases to amaze me how certain folks can parse every verse in this passage to squeeze out every possible clue to the end times but miss Jesus' repeated commands not to do so. Jesus is saying that lots of bad things will happen but don't jump the gun. It's not the end of the world.

For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.” (Mark 13:8) If you know anything about giving birth you know that it tends to take a long time. In the case of both of my children it took 20 hours from the beginning of the contractions to delivery. Some women give birth quickly but most do not. Jesus chose this image on purpose. When you see these things, don't panic. Don't pretend you know the time table. It will be a while. Be patient.

But wait! Doesn't he say in verse 29 “...when you see these things taking place you will know that he is near...”? Yes, but what things is he talking about? “..the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Jesus is taking imagery from Isaiah and Ezekiel here and so this too might be symbolic. But the contrast here is between recurrent earthly disasters, be they man-made like war or natural like earthquakes, and changes that are cosmic in nature. The clear import is that the unmistakable signs of the end will be big and unambiguous. When everyone sees things too universal to dismiss, then we will know the curtain is about to fall on this act in the drama.

And then Jesus immediately goes back to cautioning the disciples about speculation. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32) Again how do the people who keep setting dates for doomsday ignore Jesus' statement that not even he, at least in his earthly life, knew the day and time? And clearly he says this to shut down any guessing. It is beyond human knowledge. So if we aren't supposed to deduce the date, what are we to do?

Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come,” says Jesus. This is excellent advice, not only for the end of the world for everybody but for the end of the world for each of us. None of us know the hour we will personally find ourselves face to face with Jesus. Earlier this year my 91 year old dad called me to say that he had seen his doctor, gotten a clean bill of health and was told he could live another 10 years. And knowing that in my dad's family some have lived to be 98, 99 and 100, I thought this quite plausible. And then in June he suddenly deteriorated. I flew up to St. Louis and was there when the specialist gave him his diagnosis. The prognosis was 3 to 5 years. They started treatment and he rallied and was almost back to his old self. Then within just 3 months the treatment itself threatened him. There was nothing more they could do. He went on hospice. I estimated he had a month to 6 weeks left and flew up to see him again. My son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter went to see him. And just a few weeks later, he began a steep decline. My brother kept me posted and I knew from the signs that he did not have long. I figured he had a week. I last talked to him by phone the day after my 60th birthday and he sounded pretty good. He asked about the baby. 3 days later, my brother called to tell me he was gone.

There are several points in this last year where the doctors and I made predictions on how long my dad had: 10 years, a few years, a month, a week. Some of the predictions were way off and none was exactly right. The only way to proceed was to be alert and to be aware that the unexpected was always in play. And that's how we should approach our lives. Based on my mom's current age and my dad's final age I could live another 20 to 30 years. Or I could get taken out by a drunk driver as I drive home from the jail some night. I'm not going to sit around fearing the possibilities but neither am I working out the details of how I will officiate at my infant granddaughter's wedding in a couple of decades. Right now I will enjoy each moment I have with her and show her I love her.

Which is what my family did with my dad. My brother noticed how people always say such wonderful things about the deceased at their funeral and wondered if they ever said them to the person's face while they were still alive. My father must have been thinking along the same lines. He asked my brother and I what we would say at his funeral and so we wrote out our eulogies and read them to him. When my dad was lying unconscious in the last days and moaning and muttering in his sleep, my brother tried to ease his transition by telling him he was a good father and that he loved him. Knowing that hearing is likely the last sense to go when one is dying, I told my brother he was doing exactly the right thing.

But what does Jesus want us to do with this knowledge of the run-up to the Last Days? In our gospel he talks about how when the master is gone he puts his servants in charge and that they all have their own work to do. In the parallel passage in Matthew 24, this is expanded. Jesus says, “Who then is the faithful and wise servant whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns.” (Matthew 24:45, 46) Jesus contrasts this with the servant who thinks he has all the time in the world and who makes sure he gets his food but otherwise gets drunk and beats his fellow servants. Things do not go well for him when the master returns.

What is the work Jesus gave us and expects to find us doing when we see him next? Feeding our fellow human beings, both physically and spiritually. Not abusing them. Not overindulging ourselves. Not sleeping on the job. There is a term that covers all of this: love. On the night he was betrayed Jesus said, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love...My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:10, 12)

Loving God with all we are and all we have and loving each other is the work Jesus commanded us to do. Don't wait until they are dead. And don't confine your love to speeches. My brother and I had to do for my dad what he could not longer do and not all of it was pleasant. But that's love. We are to love not only with our words but also with our works, not only with our lips but with our lives. We are to tell everyone of God's love for them and show them in concrete ways. Jesus will tell us when Show and Tell time is over. We are not supposed to watch the clock. We are not supposed to take up our time doing a countdown. We are to stay on topic. We are to tell the world the good news of how God loves and transforms human beings and then give a demonstration. And trust God that when all is said and done, everything will be all right and all mistakes will be fixed and the bridegroom will be here and we can start the feast at last. 

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